Ashurst steers clear of US domestic legal market with Middle East and Asia drive

<a class=Ashurst steers clear of US domestic legal market with Middle East and Asia drive” />Ashurst’s new senior partner elect Charlie Geffen is to stake the firm’s future on the Middle East and Asia and has ruled out competing in the US with domestic firms.

Geffen’s ;policy ;line will follow closely that of ­outgoing senior partner Geoffrey Green.

“In common with the market in general, clearly there’s a lot of strong growth in the Middle East at the moment, and like everybody else we’re putting resources out there to take advantage of those opportunities,” ­Geffen told The Lawyer. “With Geoffrey going out to Hong Kong, we’re very excited about the opportunities there.

“We think our brand of lawyering and our background and our traditional product base has plenty of opportunity to go down well in that part of the world.”

With respect to the US Geffen’s views are more moderate. “Competing in the mainstream domestic market in the US is something that’s very unlikely we’re going to ­challenge,” he said. “Even for the major London firms, competing in New York – and even for the major US firms ­competing in London – is a real challenge, and that’s ;not ;something that’s high on our list.”

Geffen, who has headed Ashurst’s private equity practice for many years, denied that the economic downturn would be particularly problematic for the firm, despite its traditional reliance on private equity.

“A year ago every bit of law firms was busy,” he said. “Now some bits of law firms are much busier than other bits. Clearly the market’s going through a pretty ­challenging period.”

He agreed that traditional transactional practice groups are likely to suffer in the coming months, but said this is just part of the natural cycle and that transactional lawyers are versatile enough to “retool”, adding: “The fact of the matter is that, ­certainly in the private equity world, lawyers who work with these clients ;have ;fantastic ­training in terms of client service, client demand and the wide variety of the ­challenges those kind of clients present – both from buying businesses to refinancing them, restructuring them, floating them, IPOing them and so on.

“I think all the people who spend a lot of time in that world have most certainly got the skills to redirect their talent elsewhere, to the extent that is necessary.”

Geffen remains optimistic about the future of the firm. “Hopefully I’d expect us to emerge stronger and more confident,” he said. “We’re well positioned, we have a lot of potential and we have plenty of room to grow.

“Our model of growing organically, although it takes longer and we don’t get the benefit of local brand names, immediately brings with it a lot more cohesion than is possible when you merge. The partnership is very energised at the moment and I think there are lots of opportunities to do really well.”
Geffen is the archetypal Ashurst partner. He has spent his entire career at the firm, having joined as a trainee in 1982 before ­rising quickly through the ranks to join the partnership nine years later.

Soon after making partner Geffen found himself leading the firm’s private equity practice and he has been instrumental in linking the Ashurst brand to top-tier private equity work.

Since 2003 he has been on the firm’s management board, which he said has given him an intimate knowledge of its strategic development.

Geffen will step up to the senior partner role in ­January 2009. At that time current senior partner ­Geoffrey Green will take a holiday ahead of launching Ashurst’s expansion drive in Hong Kong and Asia.

Geffen said that, while he will miss the thrill of doing deals, he is looking forward to the new position. “Senior partner is very much a client-facing role,” he said, “so I see myself out at the coalface and hopefully bringing as much energy, enthusiasm and ­confidence as I can.”

It is clear that Geffen does not intend to steer the Ashurst ship away from the path laid out by Green, at least in the short term.

Indeed, changing course could very well be impossible: 10 years of Green’s ­successful reign have left a strong impression on the firm – as well as on Geffen.

“I think there’s clearly quite a lot of listening and thinking to be done,” he said of his plans for the New Year. “I don’t think anybody should expect me to be ­leaping in with two feet too quickly.”

Geffen may very well be a new Green in the making. And many Ashurst
partners, who often describe ­themselves as highly entrepreneurial individuals, will see a kindred spirit in Geffen.